2015 was a big step up from 2014 in the world of gaming. Where last year saw the new generation of consoles stumble with broken, buggy launches and more remasters than new releases, this year has seen the PS4 and the Xbox One really come into their own, with the PC enjoying the fruits of both as well as an army of Early Access exclusives: some great, and some not so great. Even the Wii U has enjoyed a sprinkling of quality titles, despite the death knell sounded by the announcement of its NX successor. All told, I had more than enough games to fill my list - hence the Top 12 - and that’s despite having not yet touched Fallout, Halo, Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed, Just Cause 3, and many, many more.
So, without further ado, let’s get into the good stuff!
12. Rocket League
I’m not a multiplayer gamer. Outside of rare couch co-op sessions with friends, I simply don’t have the time nor the patience to get good enough to compete in the online space. So when Rocket League sneaked its way into the PS+ Plus line-up back in July, I really only planned on tooling around with the offline component for a couple of hours to see what all the fuss was about. I never expected to be playing it a month later, let alone doing so in the capricious domain of the online arena. But the sheer off-the-walls fun of flinging a rocket-powered car through the air to smash a gigantic soccer ball into the goal was too compelling. Communicating via the built-in callouts and on-field positioning was sufficient for complete strangers to work as competent teams, and the matchmaking system was surprisingly adequate at balancing player skill levels. The frantic pace and the lack of a pre-established ‘elite’ gave me the chance to enjoy online multiplayer in its true form, and even though I haven’t touched the game in a while now, the weeks I spent with it were refreshingly entertaining.
Very pretty explosions.
11. Mad Max
For a game that received decidedly average reviews, I had a lot of fun with Mad Max. Apart from being very pretty and featuring some stunning weather effects, the game accords to boilerplate open-world design: scoping the map by raising hot air balloons - aka climbing radio towers - liberating outposts, and completing those races that everyone but me seems to loathe. Sometimes the familiar can be comforting, though. Mad Max was a lazy drive over a sea of soft sand dunes, offering few surprises but plenty of pleasant waves along the way. And any game where you can harpoon an enemy out of their car so that it swerves into the path of one of their companions, exploding into one of the most gorgeous fireballs to grace the interactive medium - that game gets a thumbs up from me.
Boxboy was a real surprise. An unassuming black-and-white puzzle game released on the 3DS with absolutely no fanfare whatsoever, it makes up for its minimalism with a generous helping of plucky charm. The game’s box-extruding mechanic is like no other puzzle game I’ve played, and even though it never gets dastardly difficult, the way the levels continuously introduce new ways to use your boxy abilities ensures that it remains fresh for its respectably long duration. There is virtually nothing bad that can be said about Boxboy, except maybe that there aren’t more games like it.
9. Her Story
Non-linear storytelling? An old-school computer interface? Full-motion video? Her Story is about as anti-mainstream as games come, and yet it struck quite the chord with a number of gamers who might otherwise have dismissed it offhand, thanks to the remarkable performance of actress Viva Seifert. Its ‘play until you’re satisfied’ structure might not have appealed to some players, but for me it only enhanced the sense of playing the detective and constructing a hypothesis that felt wholly my own. I spent a lot of time during and after playing Her Story thinking about its intriguingly ambiguous tale, and I was surprised to find that for as thorough as I thought my sleuthing had been, I had missed a whole lot of clues and side stories. Such is the nature of the amateur Sherlock, I guess.
Space: where emptiness can be a good thing.
8. Rebel Galaxy
2003’s Freelancer was a game I poured hours upon hours into. Buying and building up spaceships, hunting down bandits, playing the galactic economy with my deceptively docile freighter and its armament of concealed missile turrets. In the years since, no space game has ever come close to fulfilling the same stellar fantasy - until Rebel Galaxy, that is. From its accessible naval combat to its myriad ship upgrades, Rebel Galaxy finally recaptured the Han Solo/Malcolm Reynolds dream of plundering the universe for all it’s worth. Ignoring its mostly forgettable story, I fell hard for its core loop of taking on contracts to earn money for bigger and better ships that then allowed me to take on tougher contacts and earn even more money for even bigger ships. Sure, the missions themselves were fairly generic bounty-hunting and civilian-defending fare, but the allure of new ship upgrades kept me space-truckin’ along regardless. For a game made by just two people - with the aid of a few external contractors - Rebel Galaxy really impressed me. Here’s hoping for a 2016 expansion to give me a whole new set of ships to save up for.
7. Tales from the Borderlands
My interest in Telltale’s episodic adventure games has been on a downward slope since the first season of The Walking Dead, but Tales from the Borderlands marked a significant resurgence in the studio’s output quality. Leveraging character and humour in favour of morality and gore, Tales featured a cast of immediately likeable goofballs embroiled in a conspiracy far above their pay grade. Helping them bumble their way from disaster to disaster was consistently entertaining, with an impressive amount of legitimate laugh-out-loud moments - something that very few games manage to achieve. I want to see Telltale explore more than just the dark side of humanity, because there’s already more than enough misery to go around.
6. Super Mario Maker
Nintendo really knocked it out of the park with Mario Maker. Not only did it build an entire game around user-generated content - when other games struggle just to make UGC more than an ephemeral distraction - but it handed the development keys of one of the most iconic franchises in the industry over to the untrained masses - and it worked! Sure, there are a lot of bad levels of there, but there are plenty of good ones too. The initial onslaught of don’t-press-anything stages has dried up and the admittedly weak curation systems are steadily improving, with new filters and metrics arriving with every update.
Those updates are where Nintendo really outshines the competition. New course elements like checkpoints and bumper rings expand the possibility space exponentially, enabling creativity beyond the bounds of traditional Mario design. These free updates, along with the ever-evolving talents of budding Mario makers, have kept the game relevant even as other contemporaneous titles have faded from public consciousness. Thanks to this constant stream of new content, I can see myself playing Mario Maker right through 2016.
Neon. So much neon.
5. Shadowrun: Hong Kong
I love me some cyberpunk, and Harebrained Schemes’ recent forays into the classic Shadowrun universe deliver some of the best cyberpunk outside of Snow Crash. I played all three of the tactical RPGs this year, but Hong Kong stands out as the most polished. Also, its Asian setting appealed to me more than the European and American settings of its predecessors. A well-written, engaging storyline along with a loveable gang of sardonic sidekicks provide a compelling context for the satisfying turn-based battles. A streamlined inventory and upgrade system allow the core tactics to shine, and the variety of combat objectives keeps things fresh throughout. Finally, the coup de grace: you can jack into the Matrix. ‘Nuff said.
4. Dying Light
First-person platforming is up there with escort missions and tail-the-enemy sequences on the list of unpopular video game mechanics. And rightly so: judging distances and landing precisely is a nightmare when you can only see a small slice of the world at any one time. So for Dying Light to shift from the melee focus of its spiritual predecessor Dead Island to a system of movement and momentum akin to Mirror’s Edge, and to do so successfully, is a commendable feat. Not only that, but it shucked the focus on mindless slaughter endemic to most zombie games and harnessed the strength of its parkour system to make the walking dead scary once more. Even after finishing the lengthy story I was hungry for more, and that’s an achievement few games can claim. Next year’s expansion can’t come early enough.
I was a late-comer to the Souls series, as many people were, and though I always ended up running into an unbeatable boss or stuck in a loop of not knowing where to go, I still had a compelling - if not entirely fun - time with the unforgiving RPGs. Bloodborne, though, grabbed me in a way its spiritual predecessors had not. Whether it was the faster, more aggressive pace of combat, the spooky Lovecraftian aesthetic, or the fact that it was the first of its ilk that I jumped into before all its secrets had all been exposed, I could not put it down until I’d seen it through to its cryptic conclusion. Even then, I wanted more, so back into New Game+ I went to hunt down the secrets I’d missed and unlock the true ending.
It takes a special kind of game to both bring me to the brink of controller-breaking rage and elicit cheers of fist-pumping elation. Bloodborne walks a very thin line between joy and despair, leveraging its brutality to enhance the fleeting moment of jubilation that accompanies the fabled words ‘Prey Slaughtered’. I’m no masochist, but Bloodborne just hurts so good.
2. The Witcher 3
From my very first steps within the breathtaking world of The Continent, I knew I was in for something special. A gorgeous land full of life - some passive, some decidedly not so. Unlike most open-world games, though, there is no padding here. Every quest has a story, whether it be the effects of PTSD on a broken family, the dangers of discrimination based on appearance rather than skill, or the doomed romance between a beauty and a beast. The writing is incomparable, the characters deep and compelling. When I embarked on a critical story mission, it wasn’t for the sake of progression, it was because I cared about my cohorts and wanted to spend more time with them. Every single character, creature, and cobblestone street had an interesting story to tell, and I wanted to hear them all.
In so very many ways, The Witcher 3 is big. Its map is massive, its script is 450,000 words long, its tertiary systems are practically games in their own right - in fact, Gwent does exist as a standalone card game. And yet, for all its scale, it never loses its intimacy. CD Projekt Red’s attention to detail is unmatched, and The Witcher 3 puts to shame every other attempt to craft a living, breathing, open world. After putting over 100 hours into it, I know there’s still plenty of stuff I didn’t see, and that doesn’t even count the recent expansion. No other game has kept me so invested for such a monumental amount of time. Truly an epic.
Hand in hand, nothing can hold us back.
1. Life is Strange
No game has ever affected me as much as Life is Strange. Confronting issues like depression, isolation, suicide, guilt, and sacrifice hit me hard due to my personal experience and Dontnod’s impeccable writing. Characters are flawed yet endearing, bucking stereotypes with multi-layered behaviours and relatable motivations. Max and Chloe in particular are among the most real characters I’ve encountered in the medium, and the connection I felt with them had me so invested in their plights that I scrutinised and second-guessed my each and every decision long after setting down my controller. No matter which path I took, regret was a constant companion. Just like life, there are no right answers.
For all Arcadia Bay’s shortcomings, it’s a place I did not want to leave. From its gorgeous sketchbook aesthetic to its hauntingly beautiful soundtrack, Life is Strange took hold of my heart and would not let go. Frankly, I never want it to.
Well, that’s my highlights of 2015! Stay tuned, because tomorrow I’ll be posting my Miscellany of the Year, the games that didn’t make my list but deserve mention nonetheless. And don’t forget to leave your comments below on what you think of my selections!